Adulthood came early in South Georgia during the first half of the twentieth century.
When Danny's mom stepped between us on her way to the kitchen, she stirred a momentary breeze that carried in it a scent of Tide detergent that mingled with her own titillating musk. I closed my eyes, breathed in and held my breath, as long as I could. Suds soaked her dress, and it plastered to the gentle curves of her body where she wiped her hands free of lather after she washed dishes in the kitchen sink. Physically, she was a beautiful woman, who held onto her looks and figure through the birth of two children, Danny and his brother Lester. The sight of her as she stood there with her dress soaked, and her eyes that constantly smiled, sponsored feelings inside me that I did not yet understand--completely.
Her long dainty fingers, scarred on the ends because she picked cotton bolls in the fields, and her hands cracked and wrinkled from constantly being dipped in dishwater, bath water, and suds in the laundry basin, revealed more about her character than the gossip spread around town. The cotton bolls did most of the damage. Cotton bolls were gritty as sandpaper with ridges like tiny razors, and they left small slices along the quick of her nails, which must have throbbed at night and bled every time she dipped them in the suds. There were many late nights when she lay stretched across her ragged sofa, flowered with spots where the stuffing poked through, and she raised her feet to the top of the sofa's back, while she soothed her fingers in a concoction of Calamine and Corn Husker's Lotion. She sometimes lost wages because of the pain in her hands, but she always made them back later, in the evenings, at the washtub on her porch. I don't think I ever saw her take a day for herself.
* * * *
"You go 'round the other side o' the tree, and make sure he sees ya. I'll stay right here, quiet, like a mouse, waitin' for him to round the tree when you stomp through the brush." Danny saw squirrel hunting as a kind of war game. We spent hours, while we followed those tails as they bobbed from tree to tree. Then, when the squirrel got tired, we circled the tree, one on each side, until I heard a "pop" and a "crash" and there was "Squirrel meat for supper!"
"He's got lots o' meat on his bones, Tommy. I bet paw's gonna love this one. Let's go clean him up. I'll gut him if you'll skin him."
Danny knew I couldn't stand that part of hunting, when I sliced a little animal's gut open and yanked his innards out, so he took on that chore every time without a complaint. Besides, it was his kill, and he felt prideful when he took home a squirrel to his father. His father loved it because squirrel meat was free, and that meant more money for liquor and smokes.
According to my grandmother, Danny's father had a talent when he was young, but he grew out of it and into "the bottle" before he dropped out of high school. They said that he possessed the eye of an artist, which he now used as he picked out colors to go on people's walls. My grandfather said he drank so that his mind remained calm after the fumes from the paint wore off. Anyway, there was a bittersweet aroma that filled the air around him most of the time. When it wasn't there, he was usually in a bad mood, but there were also times when he played ball with Danny and me. We even drove his car to the store at the crossroads one afternoon.
Early one morning, I stepped through the screen door into the kitchen of their house just in time to see Danny's mother as she pulled herself up from the kitchen floor. His father stumbled through the front room and lurched out the front door without so much as a "Hey" or a "how d'ya do." As I helped her to her feet, I heard him as he screamed and cussed in the front yard. Then the car started and drove away. Her lip bled and puffed up like a weak spot in a garden hose. I tried to ease her pain with a wet dishtowel, but she pushed my hand away and ran into the bedroom as she cried. Danny ran out from the back of the house and dragged me back through the kitchen door. When I asked him, "What happened?" He shook his head and fell silent for the rest of the morning, so I left that hound to his dreams.
"Come on, Tom. I can't do this all by myself."
Danny already drove a nail through the squirrel's head. He waited for me as I took the pliers and pulled the skin taut so he could slice it free with his knife. I pulled hard, but I looked away.
"There! Let's go."
The squirrel was gutted, skinned and washed clean in the creek on the backside of Mr. Fordy's farm. That was the freshest water anywhere in South Georgia, and the coldest. We ran to Danny's house and gave the meat to his mother who marveled over our hunting prowess and bragged to the mailman when he came to the door with a package.
After the mailman left, we fidgeted and picked at each other as we waited while Danny's mother opened her package. We knew the markings of 'Sears and Roebucks' stamped across the package and we weren't about to leave before she opened the package and displayed the contents.
She reached into the box so gingerly I thought she might have lifted out a porcelain doll instead, her hands filled with white ruffles and daises. It looked like the silliest hat I ever saw, but the elation that spread across her face told me differently, so I kept my opinion to myself. Danny chewed up his lip and put a stopper over a grin or a snicker or maybe even a laugh.
Danny's mom sat that floppy hat squarely on her head and pranced around the room like a princess announced at a grand ballroom full of nobles. She extended her hand toward us and waited with her nose pointed high until we kissed her knuckles and bowed at the waist. Then she used the ladle from the beans and pronounced knighthood on the both of us, and she wiped our shoulders clean with a dishrag after she finished.
The party was interrupted by the growl of an engine as it sputtered to a stop near the front porch. It was Danny's dad. Danny's mom hurried around the kitchen as she tried to find a place to hide her new hat. "Goodness. Milton wasn't supposed to be here 'til dark. Boys, I gotta hide this here hat 'cause it's a surprise, so you gotta say nothin' 'bout this."
We both nodded then ran out the back door. We knew the best way to tell a lie was to say nothing at all. From our safe-place under the back porch, where we dug our toes into the cool, damp earth, we heard everything that went on inside the house. There wasn't a sound in the beginning.
Danny's dad started "cooing" to his wife. We barely heard her giggly response as she whispered for him to: "Hold that horse in its saddle, honey. Them young'uns might pop back in here any minute." That was when he saw the paper she tore off the package.
"You been orderin' from them mail-order catalogs again, ain't you?" he said in a restrained voice.
"Just a little somethin' for our anniversary, honey. I wanted it to be a surprise for you. I was goin' to wear it to church tomorrow and make you proud of the woman on your arm."
"I ain't goin' ta that church. It's fulla nothin' but busybodies. 'Sides I won't feel like it after the celerbratin' we're gonna do tonight."
Danny and me crawled onto the porch and saw him bury his nose between her breasts, then he lifted her into the air and swung her around, while he pulled at the buttons on her blouse with his teeth. She pushed away from him when she saw us through the screen door, but he pulled her in all the tighter. She struggled against him with all the muscle she possessed, but it wasn't enough. Finally, she slapped him.
"Milton Walls, you been drinkin' again. Don't you see them boy's out there on that stoop watchin' ever'thing you're a-doin."
Danny's dad wheeled his blazing eyes toward us. "You boys get!"
Wood scraped the bottoms of our feet as we scurried down the steps. We left behind the shouts that dwindled in the distance behind us. We stopped and caught our breath just inside the woods. Danny fell back against a big pine and looked over his shoulder. "Are they still barkin' at each other?"
"I don't hear nothin'," I answered.
All at once, a shrill scream tore through the screen door. Then came another, and another. No words, just screams, but "Help" was wrapped up in all those screams and Danny knew they meant his mom got hurt--maybe bad. He squirmed against that pine tree until his shirt ripped and the bark scrubbed through his flesh. He covered his ears and hid his face without success. The screams never stopped, and each one cut him a little deeper than the one before.
I watched him closer than I watched the house. I never saw anyone suffer so much. Suddenly, he wrenched his face from his hands and turned toward the house. Then he ran from the woods, and back into his yard. I knew no good could have happened, but I followed anyway.
When I got to the steps, the screen door still whipped against the jamb, and I saw Danny inside. His father's voice exploded out of the silence, and Danny answered quickly with a broken but defiant shout. As I pulled on the screen door, Danny rushed his dad and pushed him backward. Danny's father crashed into the kitchen counter. His arm fell across the dish-drainer beside the sink and a knife, which poked out of the utensil basket of the dish-drainer, stabbed into his arm. Blood splattered the wall as he swung around, and struck Danny in the middle of his chest.
Danny went spread-eagle across the floor and landed next to me. I dropped to my knees and laid my hand on his chest. Danny's dad stepped forward, with his hands held out as if he was going to strangle someone. My eyes locked on his face and I saw all the anger inside him as it drained away and left behind a bewildered expression. Danny's dad looked me straight in the eye, and I saw tears that rolled down his cheek. He frantically searched the room until he found his wife curled up under the kitchen table. Then he dropped to his knees and tried to coax her out, but she wound up all the tighter like a snake when he tightened his coil under the playful swats of a cat's paw. He turned to me again, and the look on his face begged my forgiveness--I think. That was when he noticed Danny, who lay motionless under my hand. He crawled toward us on his knees, but when he noticed the blood on his hands, he jumped to his feet and ran out the door. I guess he thought the blood belonged to Danny.
Danny's mom would not have done anything if not for the fact that Danny was unconscious. She was too afraid of her husband, or maybe she loved him or both, but she thought Danny was dead when she crawled out from under that table, and that scared her even more than her husband scared her. She sent me to my mom's house, and my mother called for the doctor--and the sheriff.
* * * * *
I was lost without Danny for those next few months, but mama said it would be best if I stayed away from him and his people until the divorce settled. Danny's dad moved out of the state and took Danny's brother Lester with him because Lester was older than Danny and could help him paint houses. Every time Danny walked down the road, he looked as though he just stepped out of bed and walked out of pure reaction to his feet as they landed on a cold floor. Something inside him was put back together wrong.
More than six months passed while I waited, but things around Danny's house still had not settled, and I itched for "the word" from my mother. "I guess things are calm enough down to Danny's house for you to visit, but don't overstay your welcome. Things are hard enough on his mother now that she's on her own. You two don't add to that, ya hear," she finally said.
"No ma'am, we won't."
My feet hadn't tread the path to Danny's house in six months, and the lack of wear showed in the fact that it was grown over with saplings and wildflowers. School was almost out, and that meant Danny and me could pound the dirt hard again along its length every day 'til summer ended.
I stopped just inside the woods behind Danny's house and looked for him in the yard, but he wasn't there. There was something lifeless about the house, an undiluted quiet that rushed over me most unnaturally. Normally, Danny's mom sang while she rinsed clothes in a foot tub on the back porch, and Danny yelled at Lester to "leave home and die." It took a few minutes as I pulled my attention away from that eerie silence. Then I climbed the stairs to the door.
"BAM, BAM, BAM!"
I heard the chatter of glasses that came from beyond the kitchen as if I startled someone inside.
"Danny! You in there?"
A shadow appeared inside the kitchen, headed for the kitchen door and me.
"Is that you, Tommy?"
It was Danny's mom. She looked pale and drawn up around the eyes. She wore a wrinkled dress and her hair matted atop her head like a squirrel's nest. Still, her eyes shined warmly through the smear of mascara, and her voice called my name with the gentle ring of welcome in it.
"Yes, ma'am. Is Danny to home?"
She stumbled into a startled stance as she came into the light that sifted through the screen. She wiped at her face nervously. Then, as she peeked through the streams of sunlight that seeped through the screen, she grunted and found her voice again. "No Tommy. He's got him a job down at Ed Hadley's store. He won't be getting' off 'til 'round four, I reckon."
A bittersweet cloud seeped through the screen as she spoke, and reached through to tell me why I heard the chatter of glass against glass when I walked up the steps. She drank corn liquor from the smell of it. I knew that because my grandfather let me smell some a month before, so I would know to stay away from it when my curious teenage years set in.
He warned me about the moonshiners in the area who used car radiators as condensers for their stills and ignorantly dosed their corn liquor with lead. He even told me about one man who spiked his mash on purpose with the juice of mushrooms he found on cow patties, which gave his concoction an extra kick. But some of the other still-owners couldn't tell the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool. That lack of skill proved a fatal mistake and left a stony gray body squatted inside the doorway of Miller's Hardware, and another slumped across his steering wheel on a muddy back-road.
"Why don't you come on in and sit awhile, Tommy. I ain't seen none o' you in too long now. It's like I lost most all 'o my family these past few months, even my little twins. It ain't natural; you and Danny not running 'round slammin' screen doors every ten minutes, looking for some tea or a biscuit to eat. How's your mama doin', and your grandad?"
"Just fine ma'am. I'd like ta come in, but I'm expected at home for lunch. My mama didn't want me to overstay my welcome, what with you havin' your hands so full now that you're on your own. I was just gonna see if Danny could come by this evening, so as him and me could harvest some fireflies in the woods behind grandaddy's house. Do you expect he might?"
Her face lost its smile, and her eyes bulged with tears, but not enough to lose them down her face. "I reckon he'd be happy to get outta this house, Tommy. I'll send him over after supper." Then she turned and disappeared into the shadows, and then I heard the chatter of glass again as I walked down the steps.
* * * * *
Danny never came that evening or the next, so when the weekend came, I hunted him down. I found him at Ed Hadley's store, where he loaded groceries into people's cars for tips, and I decided to give him a hand.
"How come you didn't come over the other night? It was a mighty good night for fireflies. I reckon we coulda grubbed for worms under the light they made; they made that much light."
Danny refused to answer. He just packed bags full of cans and boxes, then reached out and dragged more groceries down the counter to where he grabbed them and put them into boxes. So I shut up and stood there beside him while he packed groceries and walked with him when he toted them out to the cars in front of the store. He collected all the tips. I kept my head bowed and never looked up into the customer's face. That way, they always handed the tip to him.
Around midday, he grabbed a greasy paper sack from under the counter and toted it out the back door to the loading dock. He turned over an empty wooden crate and spread his lunch across the top of it. Then he draped his feet over the edge of the dock and commenced to make himself a sandwich out of the bread and meat from inside the bag. When he finished the sandwich, he just sat there and stared at it. "There's enough for another," he finally said. Then he lifted the sandwich and shoved it into his mouth.
I slammed my rear end on the wooden planks of the dock next to the wood crate and slapped a slab of meat between two slices of bread. "I didn't think you'd ever ask. What's been caught in your craw all day?"
He still wouldn't look me in the eye, but at least he spoke. I waited for him to respond. After all, I wanted him out of that quiet place he hid in earlier.
"You left me all alone." He spoke almost in a whisper.
"What?" I sprayed crumbs across the makeshift table and down the front of Danny's shirt, but he never brought his eyes to meet mine.
"Pa left me. Lester finally did too." His eyes raised from his lap and bounced off my face several times like a fly-caster, who whipped his line along the surface of a creek. A tear clung to the corner of his right eye, so he kept it turned away. "But I never thought you'd leave me, not in a thousand years."
"I ain't left you, Danny. It was my ma. She said you-all had enough to worry with down at your house, and wouldn't let me leave her sight. Not for a minute. I think she was afraid your daddy might come back and I could get hurt if I were in the way or somethin'. But I ain't never left you, not in a thousand years."
We finished our meal in silence, then packed our scraps and went back to work. The rest of the day just got better. Before long we played and wrestled like the past six months never happened. A great big smile opened across Danny's face. Even Mr. Hadley noticed the difference and let us off early. He said: "You boys are havin' too much fun to get paid for it. You might as well go down to the creek and waste your time catchin' frogs or crawdads." Fond memories peeked out of his eyes as he spoke the words.
It was a sunny day, and we still had hours of daylight and adventure left in it, so we took out across the fields toward home. When we arrived in the woods behind Mr. Fordy's house, we separated and herded a bunch of squirrels into the center of a wet-weather pond. We ran from tree to tree, shouted and shook limbs. The squirrels were crazed and bounced around the tops of the trees, while they chattered at each other and crashed together. They scattered from limb to limb and scooted from one side of the tree to the other away from our racket. We slowly made our way to my house. We kicked dirt and laughed at those crazy squirrels the entire time.
Vestiges of the sun's color smeared the horizon as we entered my backyard. "Mmmm." I breathed in a deep dose of my mother's kitchen. "Mom's cookin' chicken. I'll bet she's got cornbread and whipped potatoes too." That was Danny's favorite. I thought he would have run me down when those smells crossed our path, but he hung back like a new neighbor who needed an invitation. "Ain't you comin'?"
"Nah. I expect ma's needin' me to do some chores. 'Sides, dinnertime's kinda our time together now. Maybe you could come by later, and we could stay up all night and watch scary movies on the 'Saturday Night Frights' or somethin' like that. I ain't gotta work tomorrow and ma's goin' out tonight, so we'll have the house all to ourselves. She probably won't be home 'til the rooster crows."
"Okay. I'll ask my ma, but I'm sure it'll be alright with her. It always is."
With that said, Danny turned and ran off into the woods.
When I got to the back door of my house, I caught sight of my mother and my grandfather sitting at the kitchen table. As soon as my mother saw me through the screen, she climbed to her feet then stooped to whisper something in my grandfather's ear on her way out of the room. He nodded his head, and she patted him on the shoulder just before she disappeared through the doorway. I knew this to be signs of a "manly" talk. That meant she wanted him to talk to me about something she didn't feel comfortable with, and that list was short.
"Hey, grandpa," I said as I bounced through the door.
"What ya been up to, boy?" Grandps said as he patted his hand on the seat of the chair next to him. "Why don't you take a seat and let's talk-a-piece."
Well, I knew I wasn't in trouble, or he would have pulled off his belt first thing, and the tone of his voice swelled with that ring of wisdom he mustered the last time we talked about the birds-and-the-bees. So I decided this would be one of those man-to-man talks about "growing up and handling responsibility" or "keeping my room clean" or something equally as dumb.
"You remember last month--I told you 'bout that nasty corn liquor?" Grandpa began.
"Well, there's been rumors spreadin' around, and they say Danny's mama has taken to drinkin' corn liquor with Jason and Willard Evans. Now that's nobody's business, 'cept that you'll be over there--I'm sure of that--and your mama frets for you. I told her we already talked about the ills of corn liquor, but she wanted me to make sure you knew not to mess with it."
"I won't, grandpa. 'Sides, Danny's mama wouldn't drink any kinda liquor while me and Danny were there. You know that, don't ya?"
"I suspect as much." He nodded his head and then continued. "But the drink puts mighty strange notions in some folk's heads. Lord knows, you can't speak for those Evans boys as to what they'll do, and there's no tellin' what kinda mischief they could be lookin' for or what kinda trouble, they might spread your way just by being 'round."
"How's that, grandpa?"
"What would you think if you found a jar o' corn liquor say--layin' under the couch in the front room? Would you think to try you a sip?"
"Not even if Danny was to goad you?"
"No, sir. Danny wouldn't do that, and I wouldn't drink none anyhow. Not after the talkin', you gave me. I remember how Uncle William got his 'Jake Leg,' and how those two cold, gray bodies were found last month. I ain't takin' no chances like that."
My grandpa snickered, then reminisced. "William always did like that Jamaican-Ginger Snake Oil. I never could get him to admit it though, even after the doctor diagnosed his 'Jake Walk' and reported it to the gov'ment." He hushed and shook his head, then smiled to himself. "I'm glad you were a-listenin' boy. I'll tell your mama you understand. And I think you'll be okay down at Danny's long as you remember my words. And watch out for them Evans boys. They're no good."
"Yes, sir. No good ever come out of a nasty jar of homemade liquor. I'll never forget that."
After supper, I ran down to Danny's through the dark patch of woods that lay between his house and mine. Limbs whipped at my face as I ran, and the full moon anchored itself in the corner of my eye. All the way, I wondered what I would do if Danny tried to goad me into a drink from a jar of moonshine, but I reassured myself that wouldn't happen.
* * * *
Danny's house was dark inside, except for a soft glow that seeped through the front window, so I ran around and let myself in the front door. His mama was still there, and she sat on the arm of the sofa adorned in her best dress with that floppy, white, flowery hat perched atop her head. She waited for the Evans boys.
"Come on in, Tommy. I've made you boys some popcorn to snack on, and there's tea in the icebox. You-all can stay up 'til two o'clock, but no later. Ya, hear me, Danny?"
"Mrs. Wall, where you a-goin' all dressed up and pretty?" I knew the answer, but I felt the compliment might have eased the moment. She seemed so downcast when I saw her the other day. And it must have worked because she got up and came straight over to kiss the top of my head. Then she almost danced into the kitchen and started to warm some butter to pour over our popcorn. The smell filled our nostrils and drew Danny and me straight to her side.
Danny's mom hummed a saintly melody while she poured the butter over the bowl of popcorn. That floppy hat of hers, which started all the trouble, sat atop the post of one of the chairs beside her. She made herself at home again. The three of us circled the table with the bowl of popcorn in the center and slowly picked it over while we talked.
"Ma, I don't see why you gotta go out tonight. Tommy and me could use some more popcorn, and maybe some hot chocolate like we used to get. We could make a night of it and watch Dracula or Wolfman on the late-night-movies." His eyes glistened the way they used to, as he looked his mother up and down. I saw that he hoped she'd say yes.
"I don't know Danny--" She seemed to be wrestling with her answer. "I might be able to--"
"BAM, BAM, BAM!"
Danny's mom looked over her shoulder toward the door, then back to us. "Let me think it over." She said as she left us and answered the knock.
It was the Evans boys, and they were already drunk. When she reminded them of the proper behavior in front of "her boys," they straightened up. She lowered her voice so we couldn't hear, but we knew she tried to get out of her date. Jason Evans got real friendly, cupped his hands behind her head with his arms resting on her shoulders, and stared into her eyes while he promised not to keep her out too late.
"But I don't think I want to go at all. Me and my boy ain't had a good night together in a month o' Sundays."
"I know, honey, but we're just wantin' a little partyin' tonight. We could have you back before these boys get settled on the sofa. Now, you know we been nice enough to you when you needed it. Or have you forgotten that money we loaned you for your divorce? I think you owe us a little something in return."
Danny's mom scowled, and her voice raised in pitch. "I think I've been repayin' you boys for the past few months. Or have you forgotten who's been cleaning your house and cookin' for ya half the time?"
Just then Willard stepped out of the shadows with a big smile plastered across his face. He was the older of the two Evans boys, and folks said he had a way with the ladies. "Come on you two, settle down. That's enough of this talk about money and payments. We've all been havin' a good time these past few weeks." He pushed Jason to the side with one hand and reached out gently with the other to stroke Danny's mom's cheek. "Haven't we--I mean, hasn't it been fun for you too?" He lifted her chin and looked hard into her eyes. "You ain't gotta come. But I would enjoy your company, and I do hope you'll say yes. At least for a little while."
Danny's mom drew her lips tight, and her eyes darted toward us and back to the older brother, who stood inside her doorway. Then, with the sound of surrender in her voice, she answered him. "Okay, Willard. I'll come, but I can't stay. I have to get back here before midnight." She turned to face Danny. "That's when the late-night-movie starts, don't it?" she smiled at Danny and me.
"Yes'am." Danny's face curled into a frown, and he looked away from her for a minute, then he straightened his face into a smile and turned back. "I'll make us some more popcorn if you'll melt the butter when you get back."
"You bet I will, son." Danny's mom pulled away from Willard's grasp and left him empty-handed by the door. A cool wisp of evening air caught on her heel, and she dragged it across me as she passed into the kitchen and retrieved her hat. Her scent lingered in a puff of cool air. It was gentle, brisk, and freshly washed.
She came out of the kitchen as she tied the ribbons of that daisy studded bonnet under her chin and gave Danny his orders for the evening. "Don't burn a hole in the bottom of my good pot tryin' to pop the last kernel o' corn. And stay away from that ham, it's for Church-Social tomorrow." She bent and kissed at Danny as she walked through the doorway, but missed his head, so she blew him another kiss from the other side of the screen while Willard tugged on her arm. She mouthed the words "I love you" and waved, then ducked her head and climbed into the backseat of Willard's car.
Danny watched from behind the curtain as they drove away. He stayed there and stared into the darkness until I reminded him that our TV show was on another channel. But then, as released the curtain and started toward me, he froze in his tracks with a puzzled expression on his face.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
He stood there for a moment as he reached deep within his mind, and searched for some elusive answer, but it remained just beyond his grasp. Then, as if a thought exploded inside his head, his eyes filled awareness, and he returned to the curtains.
"What you lookin' for, Danny?"
I joined him beside the curtains and peered over his shoulder into the dark and quiet countryside. Storm clouds wrapped around the moon's glow and made the darkness all the deeper. I saw nothing until a pair of headlights jumped at me from across the street.
"It's him!" Danny's eyes grew round.
Danny lunged for the door. "Pa!"
From the porch, we heard gravel as it popped under his tires when he pulled onto the road, and we saw lights that sped away in the same direction the Evans boys went.
I never heard Danny cuss before that moment, except one time, when Lester jumped him from behind and whooped him good on his way to Sunday school. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I realized Danny ran down the road in the direction of his father's car. I knew nothing good waited down that path, but I followed anyway.
* * * *
Danny was thirty yards in front of me when he stopped. His head turned in every direction as he reasoned where he was. That was when I caught him. "Danny. You think that was your dad?"
Then he shot through the knee-high grass on the south side of the road, leaped the standing water in the ditch and disappeared into the woods. I followed behind him. I lost him under the blackened, cloudy sky, but followed the sounds of limbs that cracked under foot and stumbled steps across an uneven forest floor until lightning flashed and showed me his back as he raced through the trees ahead. We ran so long my heart felt like it might burst out of my chest and my legs caught fire with cramps, then fell dead under my weight. I landed on my knees but made sure and marked the direction of Danny's travel through the darkness. A few moments later, I followed.
My legs wobbled, but I had waited long enough. I slowly made my way through the trees in the same direction Danny took. Eventually, I recognized my surroundings. I was in the woods near the Evans' place. I saw a light and heard voices that called to me through the trees ahead. As I approached the light, I saw Danny where he leaned against a tree and listened to someone's conversation as it took place in the yard outside of a dilapidated house. I approached him, and his arm shot out and halted my advance. "Shshshsh!" he whispered. Then he signaled, and I joined him, but quietly. I barely heard the voices, but I saw the individuals in the light. Danny's dad leaned against his car about ten feet from the front porch, while the Evans boys spoke to him through the closed screen door. Suddenly, Danny's mom stepped through the screen door, shook her finger and screamed at Danny's dad.
I looked toward Danny. He caught his breath as I watched and he stepped into the light as an explosion shook us both. I turned to the front porch again as a frilly, white, daisy-studded hat smacked against the white siding of the house, and then slowly smeared a scarlet trail down the white siding on the house. When I finally ripped my eyes away from the hat and the smeared blood on the wall, I saw a cloud of dust as it spewed from behind Danny's dad's car, and swallowed everything under the light over the yard. Gravel spat and tires squealed, and choked voices ran to the road and cussed and screamed, and then another shot fired. As the upheaval settled, Danny's mom lay slumped into a pile on the porch. She was still, silent and bloodied.
That's when it hit me like a snake that sneaked up and bit me from behind--"He shot her." My first reaction was to run, so I did. I ran into the woods so hard and so far that my lungs burned and my legs folded under me. I fell to my knees then onto my back.
Black clouds rolled into view from a storm, which thundered over the treetops as I lay in the grass and stared up into the sky. I metered my breath as the clouds rolled overhead and crawled across the sky in the wave of shadows issued into a tremendous clatter as they merged. Lightning sprang from the edges of a star-speckled night then flashed across the tops of the dark clouds and produced a grey glow, which sifted through their bellies.
The sky swirled overhead with shades of gray and black with white flashes. The sky coagulated into a rolling mass that hammered my ears with bursts of thunder. The wind strengthened and twisted the trees as they bent to the ground the downburst of wind. Then the rain fell from the clouds like a wave as it crashed on shore. Inside the blanket of water, a phantom took shape on the ground about twenty feet from me. It was the apparition of a man who knelt as he faced me from the tall grass of the pasture where I stood.
It appeared to be Danny's dad who knelt in the torrent of rain, with his arms outstretched and bloody and his eyes begged me for forgiveness. I shook my head against a clap of thunder then opened my eyes to see that apparition replaced by the shape of my best friend--"Danny!"
He had no hopeless look on his face. There was no look at all, and his arms fell lifeless to his side. His head bobbed in the wind, and I ran to him with numb legs that I dragged through the knee-high grass until I crumpled by his side. He showed no reaction. He sat and stared through me as the rain poured over his face and lightning showed the torture in his fixed, wide eyes. The thunder roared over us both as I lifted him the only way I could and carried, then dragged him to the back porch of my home. There, we huddled together until the new day broke, and I watched as the sky drained of its anger.
* * * *
We sat together until the sun rose over the trees. I rocked him in my lap, while he lay limp as a rain-beaten leaf, and still, he stared straight ahead without a blink. I heard my mother's screams as she stepped onto the porch, and I felt the ache in my muscles as it fell away when my grandfather pried Danny from my grip. I still felt the turmoil inside my gut, with anger, guilt, horror, and pity stirred within pain. It was all fresh and vivid inside my mind, and I guessed then that, no matter how many years dragged by; those visions would not be gone.
The sheriff stared at me as I told him what I saw, and my soul drained with every recollection. There was nothing left as I finished, nothing but emptiness inside me, and that was when the tears came. They poured into my mother's lap as she stroked my head, and then she wept over my still body as I finally slept.
* * * *
"To this day, that's how I remember Danny. That and the sight of him inside a dark, smelly room with no tables, no chairs, with his hair in twists and springing from his head, and a robe loosely covering him, smelling from weeks without care. Still on his knees, gawking through dead air--God only knows what monsters he sees."
"I pray that likeness abandons me before I take my last breath. When I think back on Danny, I want to see him as we chase those squirrels through old man Fordy's woods and scream at Lester to 'leave home and die.' I want to see him and his mama as they prance around the kitchen, singing happy songs--and I want to live the rest of my life without waking to see those cold, empty eyes."